Bring up the topic of Indian cuisine to the average eater and he might come up with something along the lines of “spicy!” Ask the more seasoned foodie and you’ll get a list of his favorite Indian dishes: Tandoori Chicken, Saag Paneer, Tikka Masala, etc. Highbrow meets brow at Saravana Bhavan, where traditional Indian food is made accessible to a diverse clientele without sacrificing taste (or spice).
Nestled in the Upper West Side, Saravana Bhavan serves a menu that is completely vegetarian with a focus on the culinary tradition of South India. We began our meal with a Masala Dosa, a thin crepe filled with spiced potatoes and onions. Unlike its French contemporary, this crepe was crisp, savory and long. The dish is approximately two feet in length, eliciting gasps from fellow restaurant goers and the need to clear away plates to make room on your table.
The Masala Dosa was followed by Vegetable Makhanwala, cubes of vegetables served in a rich gravy. The curry had the perfect blend of herbs and spices and when paired with potatoes and cauliflower created a hearty dish that satisfies even the most earnest of carnivores. We paired the Makhanwala with Poori, an Indian bread where fluffy dough is fried to create a pita-like pocket. Poori can be a difficult bread to make, if the dough is not soft enough or if it fried too much the results can be dismaying. This Poori, however, was made to perfection and offset the tanginess of the curry wonderfully.
After the Makhanwala we sampled the Baingan Masala, a roasted and minced eggplant that is usually very spicy. Saravana Bhavan’s interpretation of this dish included peas which enhanced the texture of the curry by keeping it thick and making it easier to eat with our paired Naan. The addition of the peas also made the dish less spicy, a welcomed addition for those less inclined to intense heat. This dish is just another example of Saravana Bhavan’s attention to making Indian food accessible for all.
Our meal culminated in a giant and impressive South Indian Thali. A Thali is an Indian version of a taste sampler, where several curries are paired with rice and Chappathi, a thin bread. Usually the portions in a Thali are small but Saravana Bhavan’s Thali has enough food for two people, making it a great value at $18.50. Our Thali exhibited some staples of South Indian cuisine. It included Sambar, a sour soup with lentils and vegetables, Rasam, a bitter watery blend of herbs and spieces, Kurma, Kootu, and Poriyal, all of which are types of Indian vegetables served in gravy, as well as several desserts. This dish was also accompanied with a serving of yoghurt in order to ease the palette between dishes.
Saravana Bhavan is a must for veteran Indian restaurant goers and those who are giving this branch of cuisine a first try. The restaurant itself is a bit small, but soft golden lighting and dark tables make the space warm and cozy, perfect for an intimate meal for two. The dinner service gets busy, the clientele are mostly locals, and reservations are not accepted so arrive early for a delectable dining experience.
Saravana Bhavan. 413 Amsterdam Ave. (212) 721-7755. 1 to 79th St.